You read Romeo & Juliet in high school. You saw Much Ado About Nothing one summer at the park. Even if you’ve never seen (or read) them, cultural references to Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello are so ubiquitous that you probably feel like you have. The same likely can’t be said for The Winter’s Tale, a play Shakespeare wrote in the winter of his own life and one that, given its odd mix of tragic and comic elements, often defies categorization.
Directed by Robert Falls for the Goodman Theatre, this somewhat obscure play manages both an intensity and levity that would feel at home in two (or more) separate shows, let alone a single one that spans nearly two decades and explores the ramifications of ego, betrayal, mistaken identity and enduring love. Yes, all that ground (and more) is covered. This is Shakespeare after all.
Though I consider myself fairly well-versed when it comes to the Bard, I for one walked into opening night essentially ignorant about this show in particular; others more educated in these things can tell you that this production, presented in a brisk 2.5 hours (including intermission), has been cut down significantly. Or they’ll be able to reference the various ways one of the most iconic characters of the play (a bear) has been interpreted over time in versions around the world. For better or worse, I can’t speak to any of that; instead, I can offer my take on what I saw that night alone: a layered, powerful production of a play that, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, stands the test of time nearly 400 years after he wrote it.
The first half of the show chronicles Leontes’s (Dan Donohue) descent into madness; the King of Sicily believes his wife Hermione (Kate Fry) has been unfaithful with his best friend Polixenes (Nathan Hosner), the King of Bohemia, and that he fathered her unborn child. How quickly and with such ferocity he becomes a jealous, monstrous monarch who condemns his wife for her perceived sins is both flabbergasting and jaw-dropping. With a baritone to rival iconic voices like Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones, Donohue’s authority and control, even as Leontes goes ever more off the deep end, is breathtaking. Surrounded by sycophants and yes-men who try only meekly to talk some sense into him, it’s one of his most trusted adviser’s wives, Paulina (Christiana Clark, in a performance that quite literally moved me to tears), who summons the courage to speak truth to power and call Leontes to the carpet.
But alas, it’s all for naught—banished to prison to await a sham trial, Hermione gives birth to a daughter who, no matter how Paulina tries to get him to accept her, Leontes will not recognize. His brutality towards a newborn is so believable (we know it’s just a doll in there, but still) that it elicited audible gasps from the audience. In true Shakespearean style, tragedy follows tragedy as Mamillius (Charlie Herman), son of Leontes and Hermione, dies suddenly of stress and heartbreak. Leontes is distraught, but only so far as his rage allows him; he orders Camillo (Henry Godinez), a trusted aide, to abandon the new child somewhere far flung, where she’ll surely succumb to the elements.
And here is where the twists really start to push the plot into head-scratching territory, as the show makes a tonal left turn into a comedy a la A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a whimsical interlude, Time himself (Mark Lancaster) greets us for the second half, revealing that 16 years have passed and much has changed in Sicily and Bohemia, not the least of which is that Leontes’ abandoned daughter Perdita (Chloe Baldwin) has grown up a shepherd’s daughter and fallen in love with a quite unexpected candidate: Polixenes’s son Florizel (Xavier Bluel). If all of that sounds like a lot of plot to reveal in one write-up, rest assured that’s only scratching the surface of a complex (but never complicated) production.
Falls navigates all this with deft confidence, perhaps the most essential ingredient in keeping a show as varied and curious as this one on track. More than once, I found myself involuntarily drawing comparisons to modern matters—a near-authoritarian ruler boosted by an inner circle unwilling to challenge him, a woman’s autonomy and security pulled out from under her at the slightest hint of a man’s bruised ego. In the course of a single evening, The Winter’s Tale will at times feel silly, chaotic, deeply tragic and more; and it’s all by design.
The Winter’s Tale continues at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., through June 9. Tickets are $30-$80.
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